The Russian Orthodox church was the official state religion of the Russian Empire, but not in the sense that most of us would understand by that. In the time of the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovitch Romanov (the second Romanov Tsar), there was a terrible schism in the church, as a result of the reforms enacted by Nikon, the Patriarch. The church split into the "Old Believers" and the "New Believers." Alexei officially supported the New Believers, and in fact, for a long time, the Old Believers were actively hunted down. Most of those who were sufficiently ardent in their support of the "old church" fled to the northern forests, or to the Ukraine, the latter of which was a centuries old refuge for escaped serfs and undesirables. The Old Believers survive to this day, and i was interested when Habibi (or Nimh, as most of you know him) told of meeting Old Believers when he was in the Ukraine.
Both politically and religiously, Constantinople was known to the world of the middle ages as "the second Rome," or "the new Rome." The Russians did not become Christians until late in the 9th century, and it was not until late in the 10th century that the Princes of Kiyiv (Kiev, for you westerners) began to attempt to impose Christianity on the people of Russia. The Russians who are Orthodox have just recently celebrated the millennium of Orthodox Christianity in Russia.
With the decline of the Roman Empire at Constantinople, and after the Mongol invasion, the Russian Princes gave the church a special position in society, and exempted them from taxation. At this time, the Russian Orthodox church began to become involved in monasticism, and endowments to churches, monasteries and convents became as popular in Russia as they were in western Europe. In the 14th century, Russia was invaded by the Lithuanians, most of whom were still "pagan," and the Grand Duke of Moscow made the Russian Orthodox Church the state religion as a means of unifying the resistance to the Tatars (heirs of the Mongols) and the Lithuanians. In the early 15th century, the Grand Dukes of Moscow stopped paying tribute to the Crimean Tatars (who continued to raid into the Ukraine and southern Russian for literally centuries, selling hundreds of thousands of Russians into slavery in the course of more than 300 years). He used the political ascendancy he acquired from defying the "infidels" and his support of the church to consolidate his rule over more of Russia, and in the late 15th century, Ivan III made himself Tsar, and "ruler of all the Rus." The Russians then began to call Moscow "the third Rome," and one of their Bishops was confirmed as Metropolitan, and that made the Russian church independent of the rest of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Soon, the Metropolitan was recognized by the Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church as a Patriarch in his own right, and the Russian Orthodox Church became fully independent.
At end of the 16th century, the Poles and Lithuanians invaded Russia, and even eventually took Moscow, putting a puppet Polish Tsar in the Kremlin. The Russians, with characteristic fatalism and understatement, refer to this as the time of troubles. The Russians soon drove them out, and loaded the Polish Tsar into one of the enormous cannons on the walls of the Kremlin, launching him back toward his homeland. But Russian was without a Tsar, and a convocation of Princes, Boyars (a general term for Russian aristocrats), Metropolitans and Bishops cast about for someone to take the title and the responsibilities of the office. They eventually settled on the the 16-year-old Mikhail Feodorovitch Romanov, who agreed to take the throne, but, being no dummy, hedged his election around with conditions. One of these was that his father became the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. The other was that he could convene such a convocation in the future to confirm the descent of the dynasty--he was pretty sharp for a teenager.
He eventually did convene the Princes, Boyars, Bishops and Metropolitans, and had his son Alexei confirmed as his heir and successor on the imperial throne. It was Mikhail who began to slowly and carefully introduce westerners and western customs into Russia, and this was continued by his son Alexei Mikhailovitch. In the mid-17th century, a monk from western Russia, in territory disputed between Russian and the crumbling Polish-Lithuanian empire, took the name Nikon upon taking holy orders. He quickly rose in church ranks, and became a Metropolitan. Alexei was a very conservative ruler in many respects, but he believed in reform where it was needed, and the church cried out for reform. In the 1650s, Nikon began the reforms, and used scholars from Greece and middle east to help make his case. A synod was convened, reforms were proposed, and the entire plan was submitted to the arbitration of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch and Jerusalem, who, with minor changes, approved the reform plan. Nikon was pretty ruthless in his suppression of the now proscribed practices, and a deep and abiding hatred grew up between the Old Believers and the new church.
But Nikon overreached himself, and attempted to assert his authority over the Tsar himself. His enemies gathered against him, and to forestall any move by the Tsar (they had been good friends, Alexei being very devout), he resigned the Patriarchate. But Russia was without a Patriarch for eight years, because no one knew what to do. Finally, at the end of 1666, an ecumenical council formally deposed Nikon.
Alexei had two wives, Maria Miloslavskaya, and after her death, Natalya Narishkina. The rivalry between the Miloslavskys and the Narishkins lead to bloody strife, and eventually the Streltsy (Russian peasant soldiers) attacked and invaded the Kremlin, slaughtering Narishkins and their supporters before Natalya and her stepson Ivan, and her son Petr. These two boys (14 and 10 respectively at the time) became "co-Tsars" under a regency of their older sister (half-sister in the case of Petr) Sophia. Less than a decade later, after misrule and military disasters, Petr was able successfully to depose Sophia, and although he continued to be co-Tsar with Ivan, he basically took over the government, while Ivan took care of ceremonial duties--he would rather be a married monk than an emperor. After his death, Petr was very solicitous of his widow and daughters, and his wife Praskovia became a fierce partisan of Petr.
That Petr is the Tsar known to the west as Peter the Great. He officially made Russia an Empire, and technically, Petr and all his successors were no longer Tsars, but Emperors, which also made it possible for several women to rule Russia as Empresses. Peter reorganized the entire machinery of Russian government, and one of his measures was to severely restrict the scope of the monasteries and convents, to order all endowments to be paid to the government to managed for the monastic orders (which meant they quickly dried up--the wealthy already thought they were paying Petr too much) and he put all the priests, Bishops and Metropolitans on a salary. In 1700, when the Patriarch died, Petr refused to name a replacement. In 1721, he replaced the Patriarchate with a permanent synod of Bishops and Metropolitans, chosen by the government. Like absolutely every other agency of the state in Petr's new empire, the church got its marching orders and its money from an official of the state, appointed by the Emperor.
When the Russian Empire finally collapsed, it meant that the funding for the church, and the salaries for its priests and Bishops collapsed as well. The Russian Orthodox are given to claiming active religious persecution by the Bolsheviks, but they certainly had bigger fish to fry. Russian Orthodox priests drummed up support for Kolchak and the White Russians, who for a time, looked like they might defeat Trotsky and the Red Army. As a result, the Bolshevik authorities came down like a ton of bricks on Orthodox priests, but the stories of mass slaughter usually have no documentary basis. Often, Orthodox priests would lead peasant bands to join the White Russians, and they would get slaughtered out of hand when they were confronted by the veteran and merciless Red Army. The Russian Orthodox partisans are fond of describing these deluded peasants who were suckered by their priests as martyrs to the "atheistical oppressors" of the Red Army.
The Russian Orthodox Church limped along in the Soviet era, with no money form the government, and the complete loss of support by anybody other than old peasants, since affiliation with the church would likely prevent any successful career in the Soviet state. Some of the more impressive churches actually got grudging support from the Soviet government as parts of the national heritage, but in a shabby State, they were usually to be found in a shabby state. The Patriarch Alexy II, who died recently, revived the church after the collapse of the Soviet state, and there has been a resurgence of Orthodox piety in Russia. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to describe Russian today as a predominantly Orthodox nation.
I find this whole brouhaha rather amusing. The Russian state does not support the Church, and if the Saudis had just hooked up with some real players in the Russian criminal underworld, they could easily have built the most lavish mosque in the world in the heart of Moscow, although it would have taken a mountain of bribes--but that is something the Saudis could have afforded. Instead, they took steps which would assure the failure of their plan.
That Petr is the Tsar known to the west as Peter the Great. He officially made Russia an Empire, and technically, Petr and all his successors were no longer Tsars, but Emperors, which also made it possible for several women to rule Russia as Empresses.
For the sole purpose of being persnickety and nit-picking, I'd like to point out that the words tsar and emperor are actually synonims. Tsar
is just the Russification of the Latin name Caesar
, which is what all the Roman emperors called themselves, following the example of Gaivs Ivlivs (Julius Caesar) and his nephew Octavianvs (Octavian) who became emperor, styling himself Ceasar Augustus. Thus, any 'Caesar'(czar) is, by definition, an emperor . (Btw, the German word Kaiser
has the exact same derivation; it's just a Germanized version of Caesar. But in the case of the Germans, there was more justification to choosing this style of honorific; after all the Kaisers often ruled over what was called the Holy Roman Empire, which, as someone far more clever than I am has pointed out, was neither holy, nor Roman nor even an empire.)
MA, you need to read up on the reaction (sometimes hysterical) of the other European powers when Petr began to call himself Emperor. The term Tsar was by no means synonymous with emperor in the minds of Kings and Grand Dukes in central and western Europe, and many of them loudly protested Petr being referred to as Emperor.
You also need to pay attention to what the term Imperator
meant to the Romans--it by no means meant what Emperor means to us, and was often applied to successful military commanders by their troops. Augustus called himself Princeps
, meaning "first citizen," and his successors were known as Ceasars, not Imperators.